A descendant of the first Native American to play major league baseball says the Cleveland Indians' decision to scrap its "Chief Wahoo" logo is a good move, but it won't "mend the pain" caused by the caricature.
The Cleveland Indians on Monday announced the team would no longer use the Chief Wahoo logo — a toothy cartoon face sporting a feather — on team uniforms beginning in 2019. The logo has long faced criticism from Native Americans for being a racist caricature.
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"It's a great move on behalf of major league baseball to recognize the fact that dehumanizing any race or any creed of man is wrong," said Chris Sockalexis, a tribal historic preservation officer with the Penobscot Indian Nation, in eastern Maine.
Sockalexis is a descendent of Louis Sockalexis, who is believed to have been the first Native American to play big league baseball. He played 94 games for the Cleveland Spiders, the precursor to the Indians, from 1897 to 1899.
According to Cleveland's website, when the team changed its name to the Indians in 1915 it did so partly to revive "a nickname of its old (National League) club upon the arrival of this Native American in 1897."
The website quotes Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward, a pitcher, shortstop and later manager, who described Sockalexis as a "marvel."
Chris Sockalexis was never a fan of the team's logo.
"For me, it never really represented Louis at all. It was just a bad caricature," he said.
The evolution of the logo
NBC sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote an article in 2014 saying the truth behind the name is complicated. While the 1897 Cleveland Spiders team was nicknamed the Indians because of Sockalexis's sparkling debut, other factors were at play in selecting the name.
Posnanski said a group of sportswriters brought together by then-team owner Charles Somers chose the name primarily because the Boston Braves had a successful season the previous year.
"So Native American names were in," wrote Posnanski. "It was [also] a glorious opportunity for … Native American jokes and race-specific clichés."
The Chief Wahoo logo had a longer evolution, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. The team used a stylized C from 1915 to 1927. In 1928, it adopted a logo similar to that now used — controversially — by the Washington football team, and it changed three times until 1945. In 1946 the team began using a logo designed a by 17-year-old that, after a few alterations, became the Chief Wahoo of today, according to Sports Illustrated.
Lawsuit and 'curse'
The Chief Wahoo logo has faced intense opposition for more than 40 years, according to Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Native American who lives in Cleveland and is part of the People Not Mascots organization.
In 1972, Russell Means, an American Indian Movement leader, launched a lawsuit against the team over the logo which ended in 1985 with a $35,000 settlement, said Roche.
Means, who died in 2012, also cursed the Cleveland team, which hasn't won a World Series since 1948, he said.
Roche is involved in his own lawsuit against the team currently caught in the backlog before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Appeal Board.
Roche said he is not dropping the lawsuit because the team still intends to sell merchandise depicting Chief Wahoo despite their planned scrapping of the logo on official team uniforms.
"It is only so they can placate people and continue making the money," said Roche, in a telephone interview.
"It is the biggest sports memorabilia seller in the world."
Roche said he won't stop the fight until the team changes its name and scraps its logo completely.
"I watched how it impacted my children, our children in the community, in the school system," said Roche.
"This isn't about someone yelling about something they don't like, it is something affecting our communities nationwide and they are finally recognizing it."